Skip to Main Content
Electrostatic actuators exhibit fast response times and are easily integrated into microsystems because they can be fabricated with standard IC micromachining processes and materials. Although electrostatic actuators have been used extensively in "dry" MEMS, they have received less attention in microfluidic systems probably because of challenges such as electrolysis, anodization, and electrode polarization. Here we demonstrate that ac drive signals can be used to prevent electrode polarization, and thus enable electrostatic actuation in many liquids, at potentials low enough to avoid electrochemistry. We measure the frequency response of an interdigitated silicon comb-drive actuator in liquids spanning a decade of dielectric permittivities and four decades of conductivity, and present a simple theory that predicts the characteristic actuation frequency. The analysis demonstrates the importance of the native oxide on silicon actuator response, and suggests that the actuation frequency can be shifted by controlling the thickness of the oxide. For native silicon devices, actuation is predicted at frequencies less than 10 MHz, in electrolytes of ionic strength up to 100 mmol/L, and thus electrostatic actuation may be feasible in many bioMEMS and other microfluidic applications.